You won't get to outer space without rocket fuel, and you won't earn life-changing returns in the stock market without straying from the beaten path. Virgin Galactic (SPCE -0.46%) offers just that. This is a growth company that hasn't started growing yet, and it's still working out the kinks in its space tourism platform. But over the long term, it gives investors an unprecedented opportunity to invest in the rapidly expanding space industry.
To infinity and beyond?
According to analysts at UBS, the space industry could could more than double from $400 billion to $805 billion by 2030, with tourism and hypersonic travel representing $3 billion and $20 billion, respectively. Virgin Galactic focuses on tourism -- but its technology has a wide range of space-related use cases, including hypersonic travel and transporting payloads.
Virgin Galactic is currently working on two suborbital flight platforms. The first is the VSS Unity, designed to take customers to space and transport payloads for clients like NASA. The second is a Mach 3 aircraft designed for high-speed point-to-point travel.
The VSS Unity is more developed than the Mach 3 platform, which is still in the design stage.
Management aims to eventually fly up to 400 missions annually per spaceport for $1 billion in annual revenue (at its current market cap around $7.4 billion, the stock trades at a little over 7 times these projected sales).. This projection implies a ticket price of $400, and the company currently has one spaceport, dubbed "Spaceport America," located in New Mexico. Management hasn't provided much color about international expansion, but according to CEO Michael Colglazier, the service "will be of interest in other parts of the world."
Working out the kinks
Before Virgin Galactic can execute its lofty ambitions, the company will have to prove that its flight platform is safe. For investors, this is where the risk comes in -- but also the potential rewards. The company has already completed 27 of the 29 verification and validation milestones required by the FAA to fly paying customers, but it has faced challenges with the final two milestones.
In December, Virgin Galactic aborted a powered flight when an onboard computer failed to connect, halting the rocket motor as part of the vehicle's fail-safe mechanism. President of Space Missions and Safety Michael P. Moses explained that the problem was likely caused by electromagnetic interference from one of the vessel's other systems. The team is working on a solution that won't cause unintentional consequences elsewhere and has pushed back the next test flight to May.
Some investors will be disappointed by Virgin Galactic's slow progress toward commercial operation. But it's a good idea for the company to take a cautious approach to safety. Virgin Galactic reported cash and equivalents of $666 million on its balance sheet and an operating loss of $74 million, so it has enough runway to sustain a reasonable delay.
Virgin Galactic is a buy
Virgin Galactic is a binary investment -- either it successfully sends passengers to space, or it doesn't. Investors who buy the stock should understand that there is a possibility that things won't go as planned. But with extreme risk comes reward. The company's suborbital flight technology gives investors unprecedented exposure to the fast-growing space industry and the potential for life-changing returns over the long term.